It’s a tiny sliver of land just up the embankment from Turkey Creek in downtown Merriam, hard by the intersection of Johnson and Merriam drives.
Cars and trucks blast by it, intent on making the light that will get them onto the interstate or the Ikea store or perhaps off to Shawnee.
But by this time next year, Merriam officials hope there will be an iconic piece of art in the minuscule plaza that will help drivers better remember the entrance to the city’s downtown. And they’re willing to put up $100,000 to make that happen.
The city has put out a query for artists who might be qualified to install something to make the northwest corner of that intersection a bit more memorable. If things go according to plan, Merriam officials hope to have an installation in March 2016 and a reception the next month.
It’s called “placemaking,” said city administrator Phil Lammers.
Placemaking is the branding of a space with memorable art and has become popular with urban designers in recent years, but is difficult to explain. “It’s iconic art that further defines where you are,” he said.
Merriam’s foray into placemaking started with former city councilman Todd Boyer, who began promoting the idea after learning about it at a League of Cities conference, said Lammers. The council went along with the idea and put it in the 2015 budget, with the idea of keeping it going for the next five years if possible with more public art, he said.
They reasoned that it was time for the city to turn some attention to public art, he said. “We’ve spent millions the last 15 years on street projects but really have been kind of stingy on public art,” he said.
Since Merriam does not have a special funding mechanism for art, the money will come out of the general fund.
This year’s project is to improve a 925-square-foot plaza next to the bridge abutment. The plaza, which has three large planters and a couple of benches, was intended to be a park but “wasn’t real successful,” Lammers said.
The first step is to find qualified artists with past experience installing public art and working with architects and engineers. Those submissions are due by Feb. 20. After that, two or three artists or art groups will be chosen to submit proposals for the actual piece. Each of them will get a $1,200 stipend at that stage for expenses.
The city has already retained art consultant James Martin to work on the project. Martin, an independent consultant, has curated several area art collections and currently is curator for the Center for Healing Arts at Truman Medical Center. He will be paid $6,000 for his work with Merriam this year.
The city’s query to artists details some of the area’s history, but Lammers said the city won’t necessarily be looking for a historical piece. The historical information was put in to give inquiring artists a sense of place, he said.
Public art commissions are unusual for a city of Merriam’s size, but not completely unheard of. The city of Mission recently installed a tile mural costing $3,500 at the renovated Mission Family Aquatic Center.
Roeland Park has also been known for its public art. Over the years the city has had sculptures along Roe Avenue, some of which eventually became permanent, said City Councilman Marek Gliniecki.
The city commissioned bronze sculptures when its skate park was built more than a decade ago. And before about 2009 the city spent public money ranging from $25,000 to $10,000 for public art, he said. Now, funds for art come from the fundraising efforts of a community foundation.
Roeland Park also got some attention in 2011 for a 34-mph speed limit sign created as art by Joel Marquardt, who later became the city’s mayor.